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New Hampshire left no margin, for error

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The federal government rejected a $17 million state grant application without reading it because some pages had margins narrower than 1 inch, state officials said.

The grant -- $3.4 million each year for five years -- would have paid for drug and alcohol screening at hospitals and clinics throughout the state. The project's main goal is early intervention and brief treatment, before individuals' drug and alcohol problems become chronic.

The grant proposal involved every hospital and many doctors' offices in the state. Dartmouth Medical School would have provided professional training.

Riley Regan, director of the state Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Recovery, said he felt violated when he learned why the grant was rejected. "My whole career has been based on building federal-state" relationships, he told the New Hampshire Sunday News.

Riley said federal officials did not notify his agency about the formatting problems and give the state a chance to resubmit the application.

In fact, state officials had to wait until the grant winners were announced to learn that the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hadn't even read New Hampshire's application.

Of 27 applicants, seven had applications rejected for similar reasons. Seven were funded.

The state's senior US senator, Republican Judd Gregg, fired off a letter Friday to Charles Curie, the administrator of the federal agency, saying he found it appalling that state officials weren't given a chance to fix the formatting problems. Gregg, a former governor, said that after all his years of public service, "this gives new meaning to bureaucratic insensitivity and ineptness."

Mark Weber, a spokesman for the federal agency, defended the agency's decision. "If we don't enforce the rules as they are written clearly for everyone to read, that could give someone an unfair advantage. Say instead of using 1-inch margins, you use half-inch margins -- maybe you could get in quite a few extra words that might tip the balance in the grant's favor," he said.

Dr. Alan West, a psychologist under contract to the state who wrote the grant proposal, said he was stunned that states whose applications were screened out for formatting reasons didn't get notified.

"It would have taken one keypunch to make the margins different," he said.

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